“The Ugly Duckling” is not a fairy tale, since there are no magical elements, and it is not a folk tale, since we know that it was written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1844. It is probably best described as a fable, that is, a story that makes a point by having non-human animals or even objects behave like humans.
In the story, a swan’s egg turns up in a duck’s nest. The foreign egg takes longer to hatch than the duck’s eggs, but eventually the baby swan is hatched out and raised along with the duck’s own offspring. The unfortunate cygnet is scorned by the ducklings for being different. He runs off and tries different parts of the farm with the same results, but at last finds his way to the pond where the swans are, and is relieved and happy to be with his own kind. He also discovers that he is not an inferior duck after all, but a perfectly good example of what he actually is: a swan.
Jerry Pinkney has done a picture book version of The Ugly Duckling which was chosen as a Caldecott Honor book, Harriet Ziefert has done an easy reader version, Rachel Isadora has done one in her characteristic style, Robert Ingpen has done a beautiful one as well, and Lorinda Bryan Cauley has done a charming retelling with witty, detailed pictures that will be great for “reading the pictures.”
You can also find the story online:
- Here is a long version.
- Here is a shorter one.
- Here is a vintage picture book version in a series of JGEP files, with several different languages to choose from.
We usually like to act stories out after a reading or two, but you might want to be careful with this one. Some young students will be upset by being ganged up on, even in a pretend situation. Here are some links for masks, puppets, and some alternatives to reenacting the story.
- Activity village has a duckling mask to print out.
- Here is a PDF file for making a swan puppet.
- Here are general directions for sock puppets, with suggestions for making goose and duck puppets.
One of the interesting things about “The Ugly Duckling” is that the phrase has almost become more famous than the story. Here are a few examples that use the term in ways that go beyond Andersen’s fable:
- A lesson plan on Eleanor Roosevelt examines ideas about beauty in our culture through time.
- Callisto is known as the Ugly Duckling among heavenly bodies. Try making “Callisto in a Bottle” with directions at this website.
- “The Ugly Duckling” is just about the perfect story for looking at questions of kindness and fairness. The other animals are downright mean to the cygnet, they judge him on the basis of his looks, and they exclude him for being different. Since there is a happy ending, these points can be discussed with even the youngest children. Thinking about how the Ugly Duckling felt, and rewriting the story so that the other animals behaved better, can be a very good lesson to stave off bullying.
- While it is pretty clear in the story that the other animals are wrong to be so unkind to the Ugly Duckling, there is also a suggestion that the creatures are happiest with their own kind. The Ugly Duckling’s solution is to leave the ducks and stay with the swans, not to figure out ways to live happily with the ducks. Divide the class into several smaller groups. Challenge students to work out a brief drama that shows how the Ugly Duckling could have remained in the group and improved it, instead of leaving. Have the groups present their dramas to the class and discuss the various solutions.
- It is generally agreed that “The Ugly Duckling” was autobiographical, and expressed how Andersen felt growing up. Research Andersen’s life to see the connection. Challenge students to write an autobiographical fable of their own, about a negative feeling or experience they have had. Did reframing the feeling as a fable make it better?
- To what extent do humans in your school or neighborhood reject or accept people on the basis of their appearance? A study at the University of Buffalo found that people who worry about being rejected because of their looks are more likely to be unhappy and self-conscious than those who don’t. Brainstorm ways to lessen “looks-ism” at your school. Create graphic organizers or a bulletin board of the suggestions, or develop a plan. Follow through!
- Soundstax is a site where you can see and hear ducks and ducklings, cygnets and swans, and some other water birds as well.
- Match the names of baby animals with the names of the adults. Swan-cygnet, duck-duckling, chicken-chick, and cat-kitten are in the story, but students may be able to add lots more. Use a two-column graphing pocket chart for this research project, and keep it going till the chart is full.
- Seasons and life cycles are natural fits as science topics to go with this story.
- Critical Thinking Company’s Critical Thinking, Book 1 includes “The Ugly Duckling” among a group of fairy tales used to practice critical thinking and questioning.